The court voted 9-8 to lift the immunity which Pinochet granted himself just before he resigned his dictatorship in 1990. By doing this, he effectively granted himself a "get out of jail free card" for any crimes he committed during his dictatorship.
The new court ruling is a tremendous breakthrough for prosecutors who have tried since his resignation to bring him to justice. It reverses years of previous court rulings in his favour. Until now he was allowed to escape trial on the grounds of poor health. Doctors have previously testified that Pinochet has suffered from "mild dementia", and declared him too ill to stand trial.
When he was arrested in Britain in 1999 in response to an extradition request from Spain, Jack Straw set him free from house arrest, and allowed him to return home on the grounds of poor health, following an examination by British doctors. But according to a report by three distinguished Chilean psychiatrists published in May 2000, Pinochet was in fact healthy enough for trial. They said the British doctors' diagnosis was hasty, and marked by a "lack of scientific rigour".
Straw was later criticised for misleading the Commons about his decision not to extradite Pinochet to Spain:
Today's Supreme Court ruling was in response to a lawsuit by victims of “Operation Condor,” a US-backed repression plan implemented by Pinochet's military junta in the 1970s and ’80s. Pinochet took power in a coup in 1973 with the help of the US government, forcing out the democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende.
A report by the civilian government that succeeded Pinochet said that at least 3,197 people died or disappeared during Pinochet’s rule. The number may be much higher: investigations are still continuing.
If Pinochet is brought to trial, it could bring into the open the role played by the US in helping the General take power in a bloody coup, after which he tortured, killed and "disappeared" civilians to cement his position, with full US approval.
In particular, Henry Kissinger has been found to have played a leading role in helping the coup. He has been indicted in Europe to testify on his role, but has so far managed to dodge court appearances on the matter.
Pinochet’s lawyers have no comment at this time.